The Cairo Detective
This story is for Kwon Nara from Hello Venus who wanted to go for a walk
I was sitting with my feet on the radiator in a shabby building in Cairo. That first rush of enthusiasm about kicking off another day of work was still with me; hell, even the cheap carpet that flared at the edges instead of tapering off made me feel like a guy who was going places. Well, maybe not going places, but definitely about to level the playing field against all comers.
With my feet toasting and my back against the mahogany desk I had a swell view of the windy street and there was such a pleasant disc of orange scotch at the bottom of my mug that it was hard not to feel decent.
Up above, January sun descended through vaporous clouds like a choir of angels. Here at cornfield level there was a burning dryness to the air that dissipated the usual dirty but pleasant humidity ordinarily ruffling through town. Two of America’s great rivers were right on top of us, after all. That water makes the air soft and pleasant most of the time. Many birds make their nests in Cairo for that very reason. January in Illinois isn’t really the nesting season, however. Only humans can be interesting in January. Everything else organic has either moved south, is sleeping, or is dead.
There was a small folder of paperwork on my desk. I could always spend the day dissociating into my bills, bank statements, and credit card offers if that was what the gods demanded of me. I always think of my financial history as the demon baby that is the placeholder for the children I might have had if I hadn’t been born in such an economically flaccid yet overbearing society. Now I look upon my auto insurance mailings as basically my life’s work. This is what I will leave behind when I die: a stack of paper that’s fields and values will be digitized by some giant company.
I lit a cigarette and looked down into the street craving something, feeling stupid and alive. That’s usually how things felt around Cairo. Better than the alternative for sure. Pretty damn good all things considered.
My gun was loaded absolutely with shells and rested under paper clips and legal pads in a desk drawer.
Another Friday morning. Breakfast was toast and tea. My sights were set on making up for this later with a trip to Cut Mart for possibly three or four microwavable oddities to bring back to the office. My cigarettes were sitting in a square box of maroon, white, and black, looking like an IndyCar at the corner of my desk. I had placed them there when I was straightening up. The usual routine when I first hit the office was cleaning up whatever frantic mess I had left the day before. This fastidiousness didn’t really translate to my personal life, but I liked to see the new place ordered well in the mornings, even if it didn’t have much of an effect on my work. In fact, it quite possibly detracted from my effectiveness by making me more effete and less devil may care, if you want to know the truth. But I like to feel modern—so clean lines and such.
The office wasn’t the cramped sort that you see in the old movies like Chinatown where the assistant is sitting outside with her unsexy phone operator haircut and the cigarette smoke is hugging the ceiling in great billowy clouds. No it was really quite serene. Drawbacks are it’s drafty and requires space heaters in addition to the radiator. I never know when it is going to kick on. Pisses me off sometimes but only in the evenings when there is no sun.
Today the room was well-lit by sunlight a transcendent shade of white peeling down from heaven like an art deco getaway car. The sunlight made me think of elementary school cafeterias and mid-century parole board hearings. I know I sound like an American tourist in Italy. I overdo the descriptions a little bit. But that’s what it was like in the office, and that’s even why I liked it. So there.
There was one other option besides work that day in Cairo, and it wasn’t mutually exclusive with getting shit done (unless you had some Guido or schoolmarm standing over your shoulder) and that was to pour a few airplane bottles of vodka into my orange juice and let it knock me around in my mind’s eye a bit, like shaking a young woman with smooth breasts before kissing her. Yeah, nice vodka, good vodka. Nice girl.
I closed my eyes and leaned back in the swivel chair behind my desk, letting it play out a bit but really just trying not to fall asleep and bump my head on the carpet. You know that moment when you can almost make a decision whether to fall asleep or not? It’s like consciousness is under your control. That never happens to me at night. It only happens during the day when I’m up in my office and the heater is turned on, the dust is rising off the carpet like a curtain of warm rain, and I have a buzz going. I will catch myself falling asleep then with an almost preternatural sentience. Let me describe this: I’ll slump over slowly like an old man in a rocking chair with his face going slack, but then catch myself just before my hardware shuts down. It’s such a fine and rare moment. I took a sip from my mug.
And that’s what I was doing that morning—trying not to fall asleep while the vodka danced around in my mind like a figure shaker’s leotard riding up the rosy cheeks of her exposed ass while she spun around at center ice. Clearly I was turning into a gross guy at the age of thirty-two; but at least I wasn’t impressed with myself anymore. Too late.
“Oh well,” I said, grabbing a sip from a rogue beer on my desk.
The boxing match between the Beantown Brawler and the Southpaw had taken place only a few weeks previous. I had seen the little males square off, and it had given me something to think about over the ensuing weeks, mostly about the nature of freak accidents and luck. I didn’t really wallow in the spiritual aspects of it. That can only shave off the edges you need to survive.
I lifted the Marlboros off the desk and jerked at the packet until one came loose that I nipped at it until it came away in my mouth. Then I switched out the vodka for a bottle of cognac and concentrated on not falling asleep again.
Outside the Cairo sky was blue. Bird blue. Baby blue. Cirrocumulus stalled thirty thousand feet up, the nosebleed section of the visible canopy of winter sky. There was nary a sound of birds, but I could hear the river rushing south as per usual unless a car rumbled by with mercenary slowness making itself audible above the din of rushing water. But that was a rare enough thing in Cairo. In fact, I think I had seen only two vehicles so far that morning, both rusty pieces of shit with their exhaust pipes rattling like a character actor.
The snow was high up in chunks in the gables.
Yep. Cognac, blue skies, January wind, a sun of brilliant white hanging in the air. This was how it started. The experience that would bring me face to face with Cairo, turning the city over like pieces of a model airplane, seeing how some of the more dangerous aspects snapped together. The case that turned my heart into liquid metal ready for the iron forge, hardened it and passed it over the Mississippi where it blew away a black ash towards the Gulf of Mexico.
I lit another innocent Marlboro, took another swig of Paul Mason and considered the nature versus nurture argument while the clean smoke burned my lungs in that everlastingly pleasant way it tends to do.
I have never told anyone how much I enjoy the feeling of actually burning my lungs with cigarette smoke. I will rip the filters off a normal cigarette that gives me some wimpy draw. No, the best tobacco always burns a little bit. Bad—meaning cheap—cigarettes you can taste the chemicals more. I smoked this really cheap brand for a while and I could swear I tasted industrial glue; I’m talking about real super glue they use to hold shit together that can’t afford to fall apart or something bad will happen. The kind of glue you smell in factories or fabricating shops. Real glue. Yep. That’s what those cigarettes tasted like. They were cheap is all I’m trying to say.
Although I had my reservations about constantly smoking cigarettes a country doctor told me that the primary thing you had to worry about when it came to cancer was family history, and all my grandparents smoked like chimneys but never got cancer so I feel OK about it. If you can’t trust a country doctor after all who can you trust? The answer is no one. Because country doctors are something. More connected to the Almighty? Maybe? When did that happen by the way? Five hundred years ago if someone said the word “doctor” you would probably run in the opposite direction. But as we became less superstitious the country doctor seemed to grow in our estimation as a purveyor of timeless and perhaps sublime wisdom. Can working on farmer’s daughters really be that enriching? Apparently so.
Anyway I was smoking like a chimney right there on the second floor of my new office not thinking where I was, had been, or was going was all that bad and that I would figure it out later. It would all reveal itself to me in the end. Not because life would make sense when I was on my deathbed or drowning in a frozen lake with the pale blue light shining through. It was possible I would have some moment of clarity. But would it really be an insight or just the trauma of death throwing everything in a new cognitive relief like when you experience a crunching pain or concussion and your context or the status quo of your internal CPU is suddenly destabilized? Whatever. I don’t suppose I should answer that question, but if you are reading this perhaps it’s obvious. Pretty sure it’s obvious.
It was a good day in Cairo at any rate sitting in my snowed-in office, smoking cigarettes, and drinking cognac while thinking about the fact that Cairo, Illinois is peninsular. It’s a little toe-hang of land shaped by two rivers: the Mississippi and the Ohio. The Ohio River curls and bubbles its way south through the fertile landscape of Central Ohio and down past the manufacturing south of Indiana. Past the ghost towns, the dirty switchgrass and the lurid, oiled, soot-spackled machinery that looks out on the river, its antiquated engineering still forming the backbone of the region; the old breadwinning machinery serviced and passed down since someone’s capital investment had brought it to the river’s edge in the nineteen seventies, and the hydraulic fluid that seeped down into the Ohio along with plenty of other noxious agents over the decades. One could say it started with the ferries, but who would believe it?
But it still looks good—the Ohio—when you stand on a wooded embankment and listen to the water splash on the side of some cement walls or lap against a half-submerged tree trunk and feel the sun on your neck, and you look at the old machines or the corrugated steel of dealerships, of tool and dye shops. You smell the asphalt, tar, grime, and smoke, and look up at the polished vehicles disappearing through ominous gates or around suspicious looking redoubts of dirt.
The Ohio begins in Pittsburgh; it ends at Cairo. If you stand in Fort Defiance Park or sit in a swing and look out over the river you can see the exact ribbon of water where the Ohio becomes the Mississippi.
“OK Jonas, you have no reason to go out into the world today,” my own voice, blowing out some smoke.